Some travelers wouldn't think of visiting a city or village without a set of private papers or a special library to lure them. They are the researchers, historians, doctoral candidates, professionals on sabbatical -- and independent scholars like me. My greatest frustration on European jaunts is to be forced to trattoria-gorge, cathedral-meander or corniche-careen with my husband, when the glorious libraries of Britain, France and Italy are in the tantalizing vicinity.
On several such trips I have worked out an honorable agreement with my spouse -- one week of beauty and eating, and one week of "you take notes with me in the library."
The libraries I have gotten to know best over the past 20 years -- while pursuing a little-known period of Ethiopian history -- are the British Library (no longer known as the "British Museum," though that is where it is), the Bibliotheque Nationale ("BibNat") Paris and the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence. They are run quite differently from the Library of Congress, and from each other. Here is a comfort/efficiency comparison:
Admission. Unlike the Library of Congress, where anyone can walk in, fill out a slip and have a book delivered to a desk, the European libraries require an application.
The British Library used to insist on the signature of a solid British citizen and proof that the field of interest could be satisfied only in its sacred oval reading room; now it is easier. Fill out a form, have your picture taken and enter.
At the Bibliotheque Nationale, you must have a letter of introduction, pay 10 francs and provide two photographs. If you are carrying a letter from your institution, fine; otherwise, you must track across town to the U.S. Information Service on Rue Florentine and fill out another form so that they will introduce you. The BibNat will give you, with passport identification, a day card for five francs.
At the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, you fill out a simple form -- there is no fee -- and head for the catalogues.
Help. All these libraries have reasonably patient information clerks (though I have met some tart-tongued characters in the lower-level catalogue room at the BibNat). The Library of Congress, in fact, spoils you with its efficient help.
At the British Library you merely get a brief answer to your question. And its newspapers are inconveniently stored at Collingdale -- an hour-long tube ride from the British Museum.
The controle (clerk) at the BibNat interpreted my demande by telling me to go to "Arsenal" (the newspaper library) and gave me explicit Metro directions -- but neglected to mention that it was closed for two weeks.
In Florence you have to go to a special office off the main catalogue room to get help. The Florentines store their newspapers at the Belvedere, which can't deliver for a week, though you can see it from the windows of the library.
Book delivery. It is very quick at the BibNat and very slow at the British Library -- even up to a half-hour for the books you have already reserved. On "special research" (the form you fill out when your request comes back "not on shelf") the Library of Congress is fantastic -- a report within the week.
At the British Library, you will have to wait a considerable amount of time before a report gets back to you by mail.
Upon entering the BibNat, you receive a plaque that assigns you a seat. You give up the plaque to controle when you hand in requests; it is returned after you've turned in all books and is your exit permit. Your requests must be filled out on the color form that matches your side of the room. (The BibNat also will return your request to you if you haven't crossed your seven (7). They persist in thinking it is a "1" and can get quite cross about it.)
Florence has an annoying but foolproof system against book theft. Bring a plastic sack, because you must stuff your purse and briefcase into a locker. Into the plastic sack you put your wallet, cigarettes, research materials (pens, paper, etc.), passport and the key to your locker. Then you fill out a form with vital statistics. This form has your number on it. It must appear on book requests, which are made out in triplicate (not on carbons as at the Library of Congress). You must mutter that number to yourself in Italian until you can recognize it when it is shouted out at the delivery desk.
Request and delivery are in the same place, and you have to vie aggressively to get anywhere near it. No favoritism is shown, but there is some tenderness for the foreigner once they know your face. The two or three people who work behind this desk gyrate like demons, and the skill with which they keep track of bits of paper and books is a triumph of coordination and choreography.
Your triplicate request must be vetted by one of these genies -- and only three books allowed. Delivery can take up to 30 minutes, so have a cappuccino in the basement and rehearse your number -- say "novecentotrentecinque." On receipt of your books, you give up half of your carta d'entrata (entry card) and your passport! One copy of your request slip goes into a slotted board along with your number and passport. At the end of the day, if your returns match those slips, your carta d'entrata is stamped so you can prove to the gateman that you are an honest citizen, and your passport is returned.
(The Florentine library is the only one I know that has on the list of reasons to be checked off when they can't fill your domanda, the word alluvionata -- flooded. Though the flood was in 1966, they have not yet yanked from the catalogue the cards for those books that were lost.)
Catalogues. The Library of Congress is phasing out its card catalogue and bound volumes in favor of the computer, but it's wise to consult all options.
Most references in the British Library are in bound volumes, but some recent acquisitions can be found in card files. Finding periodicals here requires special talent. The periodical must be looked up under the name of the city in which it was published, or under the society or association that published it. (In the other three libraries, journals are listed alphabetically under their titles.)
The catalogues at the BibNat will drive you to distraction. Books acquired after 1936 are in card files. Before that date they are in bound volumes, with a different location for three chronological groups. The system is spelled out in an English translation hand-out. Read it.
Photocopy. The Library of Congress has do-it-yourself photocopying machines, and sometimes you can squeeze in two pages for 10 cents. In Paris, it is do-it-yourself, but the fee is calculated per page by a no-nonsense clerk and paid in advance.
The British Library now has a while-you-wait service. In Florence you fill out yet another form, have it approved, then take it to the machine operator, who does it on the spot, more or less.
Facilities. Should you run out of notepaper in any of these libraries, remember the waste basket next to the photocopying machine. A ballpoint pen can be bought along with postcards at the British Library and the BibNat and in the snack bar at the Library of Congress, but in Florence you'll have to go to a nearby shop.
Food at the Library of Congress has improved with a cafe atop the new Madison building on Independence Avenue (connected to the main library by an underground passage), and the desperate can always eat in the snack bar of the main building. In the warmer months, bring lunch and eat at the tables outside.
The British Library has upgraded its food supply and no smoking is allowed. (There are some tiny, good sandwich shops nearby on Museum Street for those who must smoke.)
In Paris you have to leave the BibNat for food and coffee, but delicious versions of both can be found within a five-minute walk. Food and drink cost less if you're standing at a bar.
Florence has the best coffee of all the libraries -- in the basement -- and undistinguished food.
The world outside. Hotel rooms can be found near all of these libraries except the Library of Congress. None of them are really cheap, but the YWCA, for women only, on Great Russell Street in London's Bloomsbury is so reasonable and so convenient it must be booked well in advance.
The BibNat is right in the heart of Paris, not far from the Louvre, among other attractions. Paris art exhibitions often have evening hours. And the Boulevard Montmartre offers a racier atmosphere for evening relaxation. When I was there, there was a choice of 50 movies -- 43 of them sexually oriented -- in the space of six blocks.
In London, there is only one movie house in Bloomsbury, but it is a reasonable walk to Piccadilly.
In Washington, there are a couple of movie theaters on Pennsylvania Avenue, just a few blocks from the library.
Outside the Biblioteca Nazionale is Florence -- what else do you need?
Those whose hearts beat faster near a library can forget the Riviera and Lake Como . . . But wait -- I know a wonderful library near Nice . . .